Mason Rudolph can be first-rounder -- depending on whom you ask

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Prospect Profile: Mason Rudolph (0:44)

Todd McShay says Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph's accuracy will make him a solid backup with a chance to develop into an NFL starter. (0:44)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Ever since Mason Rudolph was a kid, he's thought about hearing his name called by commissioner Roger Goodell on stage during the first night of the NFL draft.

It's the first round. It's where young quarterbacks want to be drafted.

Now just days away from this year's draft, the former Oklahoma State quarterback hasn't stopped thinking about being a first-round pick. But he understands that where he's chosen is simply out of his control. After months of interviews, meetings, coaching, throwing and private workouts, Rudolph feels he's done enough -- from his collegiate career to the Senior Bowl to the combine to meetings with teams -- to be worthy of hearing his name called Thursday night.

"I think the hay's in the barn is the way I feel," Rudolph told ESPN. "We'll see what happens."

Indeed we will.

Depending on how the top half of the first round falls, Rudolph may be an option for the Arizona Cardinals at No. 15. He plays the one position where taking a risk that early in that draft on a player who some think isn't a sure-fire first-rounder isn't outrageous. Should five or six quarterbacks go before they're on the lock, the Cardinals may be looking at a situation where if they don't take Rudolph at 15th, they may not find a quarterback for the next round or two.

And should Rudolph end up with Arizona, he'd be right where he thinks he belongs.

Over the past four months, this year's quarterback class has been divided into two groups: Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield, and everyone else. But Rudolph doesn't think he's necessarily part of that "everyone else" category. He sees himself "right there in the mix of the top four guys." He said he doesn't care about the other quarterbacks, or even how their selection can impact his. He's just concerned about himself and where he goes.

"I look at myself as a first-round quarterback," he said. "I can come in and start for any organization [from] Day 1, and have success and win games. It's not in my control, obviously. I can only prepare myself to the best of my ability and make sure that I'm hitting the ground running."

Not everyone agrees with Rudolph, however. But the feeling about Rudolph around the NFL isn't cut-and-dried. He's firmly planted in the gray area between a surefire first-round pick and not a first-round pick at all.

By most standards, he fits the first-round billing. He's 6-foot-4 1/2 and 235 pounds. He's known for his arm strength, as one NFC executive described his deep throws as "impressive" and his arm as "live." He's shown toughness in the pocket, standing in there to take a hit and make the throw.

But in one breath, that same executive, who evaluated this year's crop of quarterbacks, showed the complexity of evaluating Rudolph.

"He never struck me as a first-round talent," the executive said. "To me, if he goes in the first round, that is purely based on need and trying to convince them that he is a first-round quarterback even though I see him as a capable starter at some point."

Even ESPN NFL draft Insider Mel Kiper can't decipher Rudolph.

"He's an interesting guy," Kiper said. "It's hard to figure out what kind of quarterback he'll be in the NFL.

"I look at Mason Rudolph [and wonder] does he have that ‘it' factor? He's a tough one. Some are going to view him as a first-rounder and some are going to say, ‘Eh, second or third round.' There's going to be mixed opinions on Mason Rudolph, but there's a lot to like."

Should Rudolph still be on the board once the first round enters its final third, his path to being a first-day pick may come at the hands of a team that sees him as its future, thanks to first-round picks coming with an option for a fifth season.

"Even if you think he's a second- or third-round quarterback, it's almost worth the gamble at that point because if you think he's got a little bit of an upside, he's averaging less than $2 million a year so who gives a s---?" one agent said. "If he turns out to be half of anything, you got him for five years and you got him ... at no money, so I think that holds true with quarterbacks more so than any other position."

Another agent believes Rudolph going at the end of the first round may be the best thing for him because it'll likely mean he'll play behind an experienced veteran starter.

There are a handful of teams, including the Bengals, Bills, Patriots, Falcons, Saints and Steelers, from No. 20 onward that could be potential landing spots for Rudolph, who could be stashed and learn for a season or two.

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim offered a few more reasons why a team late in the first round may select a quarterback who's straddling the late-first, early-second decision: "supply and demand at the position, hard to find, hard to develop, not enough time to develop sometimes."

But that fifth-year tender will only help Rudolph's cause with those teams. Take Teddy Bridgewater as an example. The Minnesota Vikings traded back into the first round in 2014 to take Bridgewater with the last pick of the round. That ensured they'd get their perceived quarterback of the future and have him for a minimum of five years. Fate intervened, but the Vikings had a plan.

"That fifth-year option provides you the ability to have a little more time with him, to be able to have cost certainty at that position, which can get out of control at times if a guy has any type of success," Keim said. "So, I think that that fifth-year option is certainly something that is dangling out there that's enticing."

A run of quarterbacks early in this year's draft is expected by many. That may tip a domino effect throughout the rest of the first round that could eventually reach Rudolph.

One agent interviewed for this story said he "absolutely" thinks teams panic in the first round when it comes to quarterbacks. Will Rudolph be a panic pick? That's yet to be seen. But Rudolph won't be devastated if he's not a first-round pick, even though he'll tell any team that asks that he should be one.

"I think you're wrong if you don't take me in the first round," he said. "It's not going to make me depressed if I go in the second. I'm going to be that much more motivated and charged up to go win a job and compete, or learn the system and take full responsibility and take my chance whenever I get it."